Pakistan’s ‘monsoons on steroids’ show world that extreme weather is never far away

In Pakistan, a flooding crisis of unimaginable proportions is unfolding in real time. The water came so fast and with such ferocity that entire communities have been engulfed by water. Helicopters are still racing to pluck stranded residents to safety. Others were hoisted from their homes using makeshift pulley systems and bedframes.

“The rain was off the charts,” Pakistan’s climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, told Global News from Islamabad, in a series of messages exchanged via WhatsApp.

Among the hardest-hit areas is the southern province of Sindh, home to nearly 50 million people and considered the country’s southern breadbasket. Nationwide, the government says 33 million people are affected. The UN estimates that about a fifth of those need humanitarian assistance.

“Just in the month of August the province of Sindh battled with seven times the rain it has ever seen, which drowned literally all of the (province) in one huge ocean of water, with nowhere to drain,” Rehman said.

Though it may seem like another natural disaster half a world away, climate experts fear the extreme weather that has ravaged Pakistan can happen anywhere. In fact, it already has in the form of last year’s summer heat dome and fall floods in B.C., to say nothing of this summer’s heat emergency across Europe.

This week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the storms in Pakistan “a monsoon on steroids” and, once again, warned of the impending dangers of climate change for the future of humanity.

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“Let’s stop sleepwalking toward the destruction of our planet by climate change,” he tweeted. “Today, it is Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country.”

There is little debate that human activities are heating up the planet and wreaking havoc with the world’s weather. Last year’s report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the gold standard for climate science, confirmed as much, and 97 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity.

“Heat waves are the most obvious one,” says Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, referring to the type of extreme weather most directly connected to climate change.

As heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide, generated by the burning of fossil fuels, accumulate in the atmosphere, they act as a blanket around the Earth, gradually warming the planet, increasing the likelihood of warm-weather events.

Read more: Pakistan’s deadly flooding has been ‘juiced’ by climate change, scientists say

That, says Francis, creates a positive feedback loop that can lead to severe downpours, like the ones experienced in Pakistan, or for that matter last fall in British Columbia, that wiped out parts of the Coquihalla Highway and left the Fraser Valley inundated.

“Because we’ve warmed the oceans, because we’ve warmed the atmosphere, there’s now more evaporation from the oceans, from land, from plants, into the air,” she says. “And so, literally, when it rains, it pours.

“Any given storm, if it formed 50 years ago, would drop less rain than it would today.”

Sean Fleming, an adjunct professor at the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia, describes Earth as a water planet. Most of it is covered by water, and when the oceans heat, as they are with global warming, it has an impact on the climate.

“More than 70 per cent of [Earth] is covered by ocean. So as you heat that up, you get more evaporation, you get more water circulating around, you get a more intense hydrological cycle.”

“We definitely seem to be seeing increased storm frequencies and severities.”

In addition to more moisture in the atmosphere, he and other experts say shifts in the world’s wind patterns play a key role.

Those wind patterns, known as the jet stream, impact the frequency and intensity of severe weather around the world. Jet streams are like huge bands of fast-flowing wind that cross the planet in the upper levels of the atmosphere. They affect weather systems, as they move them along with their flow, or, conversely, keep extreme weather locked into place.

“Anything that affects the jet stream is also going to affect our weather,” Francis says.

Last year in B.C., a weaker, undulating jet stream locked in a tremendous amount of heat over the southern part of the province.

Sluggish wind patterns weren’t able to break the cycle of heat for days, and the province baked under temperatures never before experienced in Canada. The village of Lytton hit an astounding 49.6 C, leaving meteorologists gobsmacked. Across B.C. last summer, more than 600 people died from exposure to the excessive heat.

In Pakistan, jet flows didn’t seem to be a major factor in this year’s monsoon. Instead, says Akshay Deoras, a research scientist in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading in the UK, a series of rain-bearing low-pressure systems forming over the Bay of Bengal played a big role in triggering the heavy rainfall in August.

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More moisture both in the atmosphere, and from already-wet land surfaces, could have contributed to enhancing the lifespan and intensity of those monsoon systems. Because of these changes, Deoras says, “we expect that the … South Asian monsoon circulation will intensify.” 

“So that’s the whole problem, your seasons are intensifying on a larger scale … You’re getting a lot more rain than what you should get under the normal scenario,” says Deoras.

Global warming, he says, is also causing Pakistan’s glaciers to melt, leading to a double whammy – more water from the mountains flowing into rivers and dams, and more water from the skies further taxing the capacity of those waterways.

The effects of these compound tragedies are being borne by some of the most vulnerable people on the planet who, collectively, are responsible for a fraction of overall global emissions.

The fact that it’s the world’s most vulnerable that have to pay the price for the rich world’s excesses is the tragic irony of climate change, says Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister.

Her country has been blamed for poor planning and mismanagement but, she insists, no amount of money or planning could have prevented the sheer volume of rain that fell over the country.

“Many would prefer to shift the burden to poor planning, and I would never say we are anywhere close to optimal climate governance,” says Rehman. “But is that really the reason for warming, and flooding? Of course not.”

“Our emissions don’t account for even one per cent of global warming.”

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